It was September, 1998, in Bloomington, Indiana. As part of the conference on “Spirituality & Ecology: No Separation,” a group of concerned citizens was gathered in the basement of St. Paul Catholic Center. They were thinking and talking about living their ideals. Some had planted trees in Africa. Some described ways that they honor the indigenous spirit of a place, and their own ancestors. Elderly nuns and young feminists recounted their part in women’s struggle. One frustrated woman voiced the nagging worry of many. “I want to do something, but what can I do? I’m just one person, an average person. I can’t have an impact. I live with the despair of my own powerlessness. I can’t bring myself to do anything. The world is so screwed up, and I have so little power. I feel so paralyzed.”
I practically exploded.
Years before I had been stricken by a debilitating illness. Perilymph fistula’s symptoms are like those of multiple sclerosis. On some days I was functional. On others, and I could never predict when these days would strike, I was literally, not metaphorically, paralyzed. I couldn’t leave the house; I could barely stand up. I had moved to Bloomington for grad school. I knew no one in town. Inner ear disorders are little understood. I'd received one experimental pro-bono surgery, and it hadn't worked. The Social Security administration, against the advice of its own physician and vocational advisors, denied my claim.
That’s why I imitated Mount Vesuvius when the conference participant claimed that just one person, one average person, can’t do anything significant to make the world a better place; that the only logical option was passivity, surrender, and despair.
I raised my hand and spoke. “I have an illness that causes intermittent bouts of paralysis,” I explained. “And that paralysis has taught me something. It has taught me that my protestations of my own powerlessness are bogus. Yes, some days I can’t move or see. But you know what? Some days I can move. Some days I can see. And the difference between being able to walk across the room and not being able to walk across the room is epic.
“I commute to campus by foot along a railroad track. In spring, I come across turtles who have gotten stuck. The track is littered with the hollowing shells of turtles that couldn’t escape the rails. So, I bend over, and I pick up the still living trapped turtles that I do find. I carry them to a wooded area and let them go. For those turtles, that much power that I have is enough.
“I’m just like those turtles. When I have been sick and housebound for days, I wish someone—anyone—would talk to me. To hear a human voice say my name; to be touched: that would mean the world to me.
“One day an attack hit me while I was walking home from campus. It was a snowy day. There was snow on the ground, and more snow was falling from the sky. I struggled with each step; wobbled and wove across the road. I must have looked like a drunk. One of my neighbors, whom I had never met, stopped and asked if I were okay. He drove me home.
“He didn’t hand me the thousands of dollars I needed for surgery. He didn’t take me in and empty my puke bucket. He just gave me one ride, one day. I am still grateful to him and touched by his gesture.
“I’d lived in the neighborhood for years, and so far he has been the only one to stop. The problem is not that we have so little power. The problem is that we don’t use the power that we have.”
Why do we deny that power? Why do we not honor what we can do?
Part of the reason is that “virtue” is often defined as the ultimate commodity, something exclusive, like a Porsche or a perfect figure, that only the rich and famous have access to. “Virtue” is defined as so outside of normal human experience or ability that you’d think, if you were doing it right, you’d know, because camera crews and an awards committee would appear on your lawn.
Thus the defining of virtue is surrendered to a Madison Avenue mentality. I remember when the Dalai Lama came to Bloomington in 1999. The words “virtue” and “celebrity” were confused until they became synonymous. The Dalai Lama’s visit was the most glamorous event Bloomington had seen in years. Suddenly even our barbershop scuttlebutt featured more movie stars than an article from People magazine. “Did you see Steven Segal on Kirkwood Avenue? Richard Gere gets in tomorrow.” Virtue becomes something farther and farther out of the reach of the common person.
I was once a Peace Corps Volunteer. I also volunteered for the Sisters of Charity, the order begun by Mother Teresa. When people learn of these things, they sometimes act impressed. I am understood to be a virtuous person.
I did go far away, and I did wear a foreign costume. But I don’t know that I was virtuous. I tried to be, but I was an immature, inadequately trained girl in foreign countries with obscenely unjust regimes and little to no avenues for progress. My impact was limited.
To put myself through college, I worked as a nurse’s aid. I earned minimum wage. I wore a pink polyester uniform and I dealt with the elderly and the dying, ignored people who went years without seeing a loved one, who died alone. When I speak of this job, I never impress anyone. I am not understood to be a virtuous person. Rather, I am understood to be working class.
I loved this difficult, low-paid work not out of any masochistic sense of personal elevation through suffering. I loved it because I physically and emotionally touched people everyday, all day long; I made them comfortable; I made them laugh; I challenged them; they rose to meet the challenges. In return, patients shared with me the most precious commodity in the universe: their humanity.
This essay is not a protest against selfishness, which, well done, can be a beautiful thing. There is nothing I envy, and appreciate, so much as a life led with genuinely unconscious, uncomplicated self-absorption. It’s a sort of karmic performance art. Isn’t that quality why some people so love observing cats? And I do not begrudge my fellow travelers’ enthusiasm for glamour; there’s nothing I like more. The right dress worn by the right starlet on Oscar night probably does as much to feed the soul as a perfect haiku.
Rather, I’m protesting the fallacy that to be virtuous, one must be on TV, one must be off to a meeting on how to be a better person or one must have just come from a meeting on how to be a better person, but one can pass up every opportunity to actually be a better person.
It’s sad how sometimes “virtue celebrities” intimidate us with their virtue résumés. We think, “Gee, I’ll never travel to Malaysia and close a sweatshop; I’m not brave enough (or organized or articulate enough) to champion a cause. I have to go to work every day, and I just don’t have the time or the gifts to be a virtuous person.”
I go to a food bank every two weeks to get my food. I have no car. I can’t carry two weeks worth of food the three miles back to my house. Every week, I get a ride home from other food bank patrons. These folks don’t pause for a second to sigh, “Oh, problems are so big, I’m so powerless; will it really help anything if I give you this ride?” They don’t look around to make sure someone is watching. They just, invisibly, do the right thing. I get rides in old, old cars. In one car I could see the road beneath whiz past under broken-down flooring; in another, I shared space with a large, lapping dog. I once got a ride from a man who told me he’d just gotten out of jail. Another time, my chauffeur’s tattoos ran up and down his naked chest and back. When I was sick, I went from agency to agency, begging people with glamorous titles and impressive virtue résumés for help. Most did nothing.
The Lamed Vov Tzaddikim are the thirty-six hidden saints of Jewish folklore. Unlettered and insignificant, they work at humble trades and pass unnoticed. Because of these anonymous saints, the world continues to exist. Without their insignificant, unnoticed virtue – Poof! – God loses divine patience, and the world goes up in smoke.
Sometimes we convince ourselves that the “unnoticed” gestures of “insignificant” people mean nothing. It’s not enough to recycle our soda cans; we must Stop Global Warming Now. Since we can’t Stop Global Warming Now, we may as well not recycle our soda cans. It’s not enough to be our best selves; we have to be Gandhi. And yet when we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation doing tiny, decent things before one historical moment propelled them to center stage.
Moments, as if animate, use the prepared to tilt empires. Ironically, saints we worship today, heroes we admire, were often ridiculed, tortured, or, most punishingly, ignored in their own lifetimes. St. John of the Cross gave the world the spiritual classic, The Dark Night of the Soul. It was inspired by his own experience of being imprisoned by the members of his own religious order. Before Solidarity, Lech Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped bring down Communism, was a nonentity; a blue-collar worker in an oft-ridiculed Eastern European backwater. He was always active; one moment changed this small man’s otherwise small-time, invisible activism into the kind of wedge that can topple a giant. Now, that moment past, Walesa has returned to relative obscurity.
Besides the pressure of virtue as an unattainable status reserved for the elect, there may be another reason why people don’t live their own ideals. It may be that many who do not live what they believe have been stunted. They’ve been told many times: “What you feel does not matter; what you believe is ridiculous; what you envision is worthless; just sit back and obey the priest, the preacher, the teacher, the cop, the mob, the man in charge, or your own fear.” When the still, small voice whispers to them that they ought to visit an elderly neighbor, or write a letter to the editor, or pull a few strings and let the indigent patient in to see the doctor, even though the red tape says they cannot, they tell the still, small voice “Stifle yourself!”
Such self-numbed people may see themselves as perpetual victims. “I have nothing!” they insist. “I have no power! I can’t do anything! I have nothing to give! Everybody picks on me!” These are the folks who begrudge so much as a smile to their neighbors. Even as they live in houses, drive cars, enjoy health, they see themselves as naked, starving, homeless, penniless wretches waiting to be rescued by whomever is in charge. Their sense of victimization does not allow them to see that they are in charge – of their own choices.
While working or traveling in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, I occasionally met people who really did have next to nothing, but who stunned me with their insistence on the abundance of their own humanity. One afternoon, as I trekked to my teaching post in the Himalayas, a monsoon storm turned day into night and a landslide wiped out my trail. I got terribly lost; coming to a strange village, exhausted, I sat on the porch of a peasant home. Inside, the family was eating roasted cow-corn kernels for dinner. Roasted cow-corn kernels were to be their entire dinner; there was nothing else on their menu.
A man inside saw that a human form was sitting on his porch. He couldn’t have seen that I was American, or anything else, for that matter. It was dark night by then, in a village without electricity. In any case, I was wearing a sari. He whispered to his wife, “Someone is sitting on our porch. We have to cook rice.” Rice is the highest status food in that economy. And, by “rice,” they meant, for them, an elaborate meal consisting of rice, lentils, and vegetables.
This feeling of being seen, this conviction that every act one performs matters to a supremely consequential audience, can come from a belief in God. Psalm 139 articulates how thoroughly and consequentially witnessed the theist feels.
“O Lord, You have searched me
and You know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
…Before a word is on my tongue
You know it completely, O Lord.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, You are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.”
The very marrow of the believer’s bones is impregnated with the conviction that everything he does is avidly witnessed by God, and that everything he does matters to God. Whether or not one’s fellow incarnate beings see is secondary.
Non-theists, including atheists, can also have this feeling that one is witnessed, that everything one does matters. Not just a personalized God sees and tallies human action. Disembodied forces that can never be tampered with also weigh our deeds. For some, karma plays witness. You may be able to fool your fellow humans, but, ultimately, you can’t cheat karma.
In many cultures, there is a disembodied force that demands that every action be ethical: honor. “Bog, Honor, Ojczyzna,” or “God, Honor, Country,” is the Polish national motto. My stays in Poland introduced me to otherwise empty-handed activists who faced off against Nazis, Communists, and now, capitalism, with relentless personal power. “Burnout” and “apathy” were not in their vocabulary. Even when serving time in prisons that appeared on no map, they felt visible. Honor recorded their every deed, and ensured that it mattered.
I suspect that we all have our three-in-the-morning moments, when all of life seems one no-exit film noir, where any effort is pointless, where any hope seems to be born only to be dashed, like a fallen nestling on a summer sidewalk. When I have those moments, if I do nothing else, I remind myself: the ride in the snow; the volunteers at the food bank; the Nepali peasants who fed me. Activists like the Pole Wladyslaw Bartoszewski who, decades before he would earn any fame, got out of Auschwitz only to go on to even more resistance against the Nazis, and then the Soviets. Invisible, silent people who, day by day, choice by choice, unseen by me, unknown to me, force me to witness myself, invite me to keep making my own best choices, and keep me living my ideals.
In 2000, Dr. Richard Miyamoto of Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, performed a pro bono surgery that ended Danusha's vestibular symptoms.
This essay first appeared in the 2004 book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While.